The Second World War
Served Overseas: 575,799
Men awarded the Victoria Cross: 20
The First World War had been called the ‘war to end all wars’ but by the 1930s tension throughout the world was becoming increasingly dangerous. Mussolini had assumed power in Italy with plans to restore Italy to the status enjoyed by the Roman Empire. The post-war years were tough for Germany suffering the burden of significant reparations to the victorious countries and hyper-inflation. There was a view among many Germans that they had never been defeated in the First World War as the surrender they signed was not unconditional and that the Allied Powers had treated them harshly at the Peace of Versailles. The Great Depression brought about extreme hardship leading to support for Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party whom openly advocated the expansion of German territory through military conquest. Japan also started on a campaign of conquest with a view to creating an empire in Asia and the Pacific.
Throughout the late 1930s, Germany, Italy and Japan pursued their expansionary plans, initially assisted by an appeasement approach by Great Britain and France and an isolationist approach from the USA. The invasion by Germany of Poland on 3 September 1939 led Great Britain and France to declare war on Germany. Australia moved quickly to support Great Britain and also declared war.
This time, there was none of the enthusiasm and joy that had greeted the news of the outbreak of the First World War.
One million Australians, both men and women, served in the Second World War – 500,000 overseas. They fought in campaigns against Germany and Italy in Europe, the Mediterranean and North Africa, as well as against Japan in south-east Asia and the Pacific. The Australian mainland came under direct attack for the first time, with Japanese aircraft bombing towns in north-west Australia and Japanese midget submarines attacking Sydney Harbour.
The Royal Australian Navy was involved in operations against Italy in June 1940. Australians flew in the Battle of Britain in August and September 1940. The Australian Army was not engaged in combat until 1941, when the 6th, 7th, and 9th Divisions joined operations in the Mediterranean and North Africa.
Following early successes against Italian forces, the Australians suffered defeat with the Allies by the Germans in Greece, Crete, and North Africa. In June and July 1941 Australians were part of the successful Allied invasion of Syria, a mandate of the French Vichy government. 14,000 Australians held out against repeated German attacks in the Libyan port of Tobruk, where they were besieged between April and August 1941 – “The Rats of Tobruk”. After being relieved at Tobruk, the 6th and 7th Divisions departed for the war against Japan. The 9th Division remained to play an important role in the Allied victory at El Alamein in October 1942 before it also left for the Pacific. By the end of 1942 the only Australians remaining in the Mediterranean theatre were airmen serving either with 3 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) or in the Royal Air Force (RAF).
After expanding its territories throughout Korea and China, Japan sought to extend territory through south-east Asia but realised that would not be tenable to the United States – so Japan engineered an extremely successful pre-emptory strike on the US Naval Fleet stationed at Pearl Harbour, Hawaii, in December 1941. The United States declared war on Japan and also Germany and Italy. Japan followed up their success at Pearl Harbour with a series of victories, resulting in the occupation of most of south-east Asia and large areas of the Pacific by the end of March 1942. Singapore fell in February, with the loss of an entire Australian division.
After the bombing of Darwin that same month, all RAN ships in the Mediterranean theatre, as well as the 6th and 7th Divisions, returned to defend Australia. In response to the heightened threat, the Australian government also expanded the army and air force and called for an overhaul of economic, domestic, and industrial policies to give the government special authority to mount a total war effort at home.
In March 1942, after the defeat of the Netherlands East Indies, Japan’s southward advance began to lose strength, easing fears of an imminent invasion of Australia. Further relief came when the first AIF veterans of the Mediterranean campaigns began to come home, and when the United States assumed responsibility for the country’s defence, providing reinforcements and equipment. The threat of invasion receded further as the Allies won a series of decisive battles – in the Coral Sea, at Midway, on Imita Ridge and the Kokoda Track, and at Milne Bay and Buna.
Further Allied victories against the Japanese followed in 1943. Australian troops were mainly engaged in land battles in New Guinea, the defeat of the Japanese at Wau, and clearing Japanese soldiers from the Huon Peninsula. This was Australia’s largest and most complex offensive of the war and was not completed until April 1944. The Australian Army also began a new series of campaigns in 1944 against isolated Japanese garrisons stretching from Borneo to Bougainville, involving more Australian troops than at any other time in the war. The first of these campaigns was fought on Bougainville in New Britain and at Aitape.
While Australia’s major effort from 1942 onwards was directed at defeating Japan, thousands of Australians continued to serve with the RAAF in Europe and the Middle East. Although more Australian airmen fought against the Japanese, losses among those flying against Germany were far higher. Australians were particularly prominent in Bomber Command’s offensive against occupied Europe. Some 3,500 Australians were killed in this campaign, making it the costliest of the war.
Over 30,000 Australian servicemen were taken prisoner in the Second World War. Two-thirds of those taken prisoner were captured by the Japanese during their advance through south-east Asia within the first weeks of 1942. While those who became prisoners of the Germans had a strong chance of returning home at the end of the war, 36% of prisoners of the Japanese died in captivity.
Nurses had gone overseas with the AIF in 1940. However, during the early years of the war women were generally unable to make a significant contribution to the war effort in any official capacity. Labour shortages forced the government to allow women to take a more active role in war work and, in February 1941, the RAAF received cabinet approval to establish the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). At the same time, the navy also began employing female telegraphists, a breakthrough that eventually led to the establishment of the Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service (WRANS) in 1942.
The Australian Women’s Army Service (AWAS) was established in October 1941, with the aim of releasing men from certain military duties in base units in Australia for assignment with fighting units overseas. Outside the armed services, the Women’s Land Army (WLA) was established to encourage women to work in rural industries. Other women in urban areas took up employment in industries, such as munitions production.
On 7 May 1945 the German High Command authorised the signing of an unconditional surrender on all fronts: the war in Europe was over. The surrender was to take effect at midnight on 8–9 May 1945. On 14 August 1945 Japan accepted the Allied demand for unconditional surrender. For Australians, it meant that the Second World War was finally over.